Aston University is ranked 13th out of all 110 UK Universities in the Times Good University Guide 2007, placing it amongst the elite of British Higher Education. With approximately 6000 students, all university facilities and accommodation are located on one campus in the centre of Birmingham.
When Professor Michael Wright became vice-chancellor of Aston University in 1996, he took on the challenge of overseeing the University’s next phase of strategic development, designed to secure a dynamic and expanding role for Aston as a leading UK university for the new millennium.
The research led university now has some 1,100 academics, administrators and executives supporting approximately 7,000 students. In 2001, the University decided to review all aspects of its communications provision with the goal of
responding to the modern demands of UK and international students looking to access, receive and disseminate information from a variety of multi-media channels. To address the shortcomings of its existing infrastructure, Aston decided to seek external support in developing a strategy to replace all three elements: the data network and cabling infrastructure; voice system and moving image service.
After a formal tender process, Aston chose PTS Consulting (incorporating Improcom) on the basis of its long track record in working with around 100 UK higher education institutions
Commissioned in September 2001, the strategic review not only looked at the current technology position – the study also examined the governance and support model that would be needed to support a new University-wide fully converged network. For example, the current data network was found to be highly fragmented, being managed by individual schools and departments. The Consulting team felt strongly that any new network, capable of supporting the wide range of IT services that the University needed, would need to be centrally controlled. It was clear that change would be needed at many different levels, including long standing IT custom and practices that needed to be modernised to reflect the mission-critical nature of 21st century IT applications and support service levels.
By December 2001, the team had presented its recommendations to the University. With its future ICT strategy now clear, the University retained additional support during the procurement and implementation phases. During 2002, PTS Consulting (incorporating Improcom) wrote specifications, issued an invitation to tender in full compliance with all the latest EU public sector procurement requirements, evaluated the responses and finally made its recommendations to the IT team at Aston.
In 2003 the £4 million project commenced with an order being awarded to Damovo for the provision of a Cisco-based, converged IP network, along with Cisco’s Call Manager IP Telephony solution, utilising Voice over IP (VoIP) technology. The associated cabling infrastructure consisted of an optical fibre backbone and high-speed Category 6 cabling from wiring centres to 6,500 room outlets.
Implementation of the new network began in September 2003 and involved re-cabling the entire campus. The cabling installation was completed within nine months and, alongside this, the design, configuration and building of the new network took place.
The network went live in October 2004. Over 1,500 VoIP handsets are supported by Cisco’s Unity unified messaging service, allowing students and faculty staff to use their phones to look up classroom and activity schedules, as well as use directory services. The introduction of Direct Dial In (DDI) services allowed extension users to receive incoming calls directly, rather than via the University switchboard operator, and offered the University opportunities to introduce memorable numbers for key services. Aston University became the first UK higher education institution to deploy a fully converged IP network, which now underpins its entire voice, data and video strategy and user requirements. The project provided Aston staff, students and visitors with a fast and reliable data network, and a voice service offering much-needed capacity and improved functionality. The University is also broadcasting its own TV channel across the network.
The Verdict: Guppy Dhariwal, Director of Finance at Aston University and sponsor of the project:
“We were committed to providing our staff and students with more opportunities and channels for teaching and learning by exploring the latest technology and methods of working. For some time, our voice system and data network had been failing to support the level of service our users expected and was beginning to impose limitations on us. For instance, the voice system had run out of capacity and was unable to support many of the new features and functionality we required. At the same time our ageing analogue on campus VCR/TV and Teletext network could no longer cope with growing demand. If we were to retain our position in the technological vanguard of education, we realised that we needed a new converged network capable of supporting all kinds of data, telephony and real-time multimedia applications, from administrative support systems to delivering tutorials.”
Professor Wright sees the converged network as a vital element in his overall development strategy:
“The network is giving our students an enhanced learning experience. They can access lecture material at any time from any location, including live and archived video-rich media. But the key thing is that now we have the infrastructure in place, we have the freedom to continue to develop ever more innovative ways of delivering education.”